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Hohner Clavinet

March 1, 2001
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Produced: 1971-85Made in: GermanyDesigned by: Ernst ZachariasNumber produced: 100,000Sound-production system: hammer action, stringsPrice new: $700Today's prices:Like new $2,000Like, it's okay for its age $1,500Like hell $900

Of all the classic keyboards and synths, none has had greater highs and lows than the Hohner Clavinet. All the rage in the 1970s when Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" catapulted its uniquely spiky, funky sound into everyone's consciousness, the Clavi went into a deeper funk - in the negative sense - in the 1980s; you could scarcely give one away. Even in 1996, the typical secondhand price was less than $1,000. Now a top-quality Clavi can fetch twice that.

The Clavinet began as another curious invention from Hohner staff designer Ernst Zacharias. A man with a quest to modernize and electrify a whole battery of baroque keyboard instruments, Zacharias also designed the Hohner Cembalet and Pianet. The first Clavinet - with built-in amplification - appeared in the early 1960s. Clavinet Model 1, the prototype, recently made its debut at Austria's Keyboard Museum. The first Clavinet was followed by the strange, triangular, three-legged period piece (complete with '60s-style reverse-color keys) called the Clavinet L.

But the D6 - with its distinctive light-wood casing, flip-top lid, and screw-in legs - was the big hit. The D6 is a curious contraption: it requires an annoying 9-volt battery, nominally has only one tone, and needs tuning. The pickups, single coil and prone to lots of hum, are embedded in epoxy resin, easily broken, and a bummer to repair. And the D6 weighs a ton (actually 68.35 pounds). The 1979-vintage E7 retained the same innards but sported new Tolex livery and more modern-looking tubular steel legs.

To appreciate what all the fuss is about, you have to play a Clavinet - a real one, not a sample or emulation. Only then will the full weight of this percussive, catchy, edgy, eminently playable instrument become apparent.

You'll quickly notice that the 60-note, firm-but-fast keyboard is not only velocity sensitive but also aftertouch sensitive. (I'm talking about mechanical sensitivity here; this is a pre-MIDI instrument.) Simply leaning hard into a note presses the hammer hard up against a string and (pitch) bends it, as in an 18th-century clavichord. A serious player can even produce vibrato by further waggling the key. But the main advantage of owning an actual Clavinet - as opposed to owning a set of samples or a digital synthesizer with a Clavi tone - is that a whole range of tones is, in fact, at your fingertips.

Magnetic pickups lie at the other end of the string, and six rocker switches on the top panel control the instrument's pickup arrangement and polarity. Those switches - Brilliant, Treble, Medium, Soft, A/B, and C/D - let you concoct a vast array of tones. A slider-operated string damper can let notes ring or progressively muffle them.

Aside from knowing which pickup configuration produces what tones, you don't need a lot of technical skill to play a Clavinet. But sound is produced by hammers hitting strings, so two more skills come into play: tuning and replacing broken strings. You have to check the tuning on a regular basis; a tuning key was originally supplied with the instrument. Although you can replace strings, doing so is somewhat of a drag. Luckily, strings don't BREAK often unless your technique is fairly brutal.

When inspecting a prospective purchase, check the strikers, in case the previous owner was Arnold Schwarzenegger. Under heavy hands, pads are prone to splitting, and split pads require replacement. You can check for splitting easily by gently holding down each key and making sure it doesn't temporarily stick to the string. Check the Clavi's interior for rusty strings and make sure that the bed in which the keyboard sits is not warped. Cracked pickups are a common problem; fortunately, you can purchase new ones from the Hohner Clavinet Resource Homepage (www.clavinet.com). The new pickups even improve on the originals thanks to their double-coil, humbucking design. An Upper and Lower set sells for $349.99.

Remarkably, the D6 Clavinet design did not change substantially during its long production run. Hohner no longer produces the original rubber hammer tips, but you can buy new tips from other sources, including the aforementioned clavinet.com ($74.99). Hohner resourcefully recommends using O-rings, cut to size, from a Chevy engine as an adequate substitute. You can ease changing a broken string by weaving a plastic drinking straw through the yarn and then passing the string through the straw.

The Clavinet's steely, percussive sound made it the Fender Stratocaster of keyboards. In fact, many guitarists - from Jeff Beck (Wired) to John Paul Jones (Physical Graffiti) to Frank Dunnery (who actually fretted a Clavinet bed) to Lenny Kravitz - have found it a natural extension of their normal plank-spanking endeavors.

The Clavinet does inspire, if not require, a particular playing style that is heavy on syncopation and feel and light on individual note articulation. Rick Wakeman on the Clavi was never a pretty sight.

Clavinets also benefit enormously from effects, notably wah-wah (if it isn't funky enough already) and phase shifter or chorus. Unaltered, the Clavinet is pretty dry and stark. It doesn't have a sustain pedal, of course. The lone audio out is mono, and though most people generally run a Clavi through a DI box for recording, a Fender bass or guitar amp (such as a Dual Showman or Twin Reverb) or even a Leslie cabinet can add considerable weight to the sound.

Hohner ceased dealing in Clavinets years ago, but you can obtain spare parts and service from companies that specialize in vintage-instrument repairs. On the Web, the top source is www.clavinet.com.

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